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Post-election Volunteer Bump Calls for Nonprofits to Reassess Volunteer Screening Practices

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Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Greg Baldwin and Justin P. Oberman

Within days of the presidential inauguration in January, site traffic at VolunteerMatch.org skyrocketed to unprecedented highs in their 19-year history. Interest in volunteering is at record levels as Americans become more engaged with their communities and the world. To remain effective, organizations tapping into this newfound energy must know their volunteers can be trusted.

How can nonprofits effectively manage risk while still welcoming volunteers? Our two organizations, VolunteerMatch and SureID, Inc., have partnered to combine our experience in volunteer engagement and digital identity security to address this question. We started by surveying 643 nonprofit leaders and 2,200 volunteers on practices and attitudes surrounding identity management and background screens.

Survey Says…

Among a host of findings, we learned that 68% of nonprofits perform some type of criminal background screen and 87% are paying for the service. Among volunteers, we learned that 60% serve two or more organizations per year, and eight of 10 volunteers were “more likely” to volunteer for an organization that requires identity verification and criminal background screens. Surprisingly, more than half of volunteers expressed interest in paying for their own credential to prove identity and show he or she has passed a thorough background screen.

Volunteers and nonprofits alike want to free up nonprofit resources, empower volunteers and create confidence in their organizations. We believe background screens are a powerful tool for managing the volunteer relationship moving forward and wrote this piece to encourage nonprofits as they reassess their screening practices. Consider the following issues:            

  • Reframe the boardroom “background check” conversation to focus on solutions

If you’re accustomed to uncomfortable security conversations centered on cost, risks, or painful headlines, consider how you can pivot your dialogue to focus to new solutions. New tools now exist for nonprofits that can increase transparency with volunteers, empower them to own a portable identity and screening, and increase overall nonprofit effectiveness.

  • Recognize the risks and limitations of internal vetting and traditional background checks.

It’s no secret that volunteer opportunities present an attractive target for those who mean to cause harm. Those with ill intent know the screening loopholes and are adept at self-selecting what they report on an application. In an increasingly digital age, it’s important to recognize the risks or limitations inherent in tools and services you’ve relied on for decades. We’ve identified three risks, as we’ve encountered them, in the nonprofit sector:

Risk #1 – Not verifying true identity

Nearly 70% of nonprofits we surveyed indicated they verify identity using first and last name and email address provided by the volunteer. Internal vetting by asking applicants to fill out a form (on paper or online) and photocopying their license is not verifying identity. Identity verification occurs when personal identifying information and supporting documents are compared against national databases to flag discrepancies and verify identity. A background screen is only as good as the verified identity it is checking.

Risk #2 –  Not running a comprehensive background screen

Assuming that a background screen begins with an accurate identity, these key factors will strengthen the accuracy and outcome of a background screen:

  • Complete Information: Those with something to hide often bet on their local nonprofit only searching the information they provide on their application. If applicants omit a previous residence, prior volunteer experience, etc., low-quality screens may not search all available records for individuals. Comprehensive screens have far-reaching data sources, and are not limited to information provided (or omitted) by the applicant.
  • Geographic Reach: Some screening services are limited to a geographic region (state or county) based on prior addresses disclosed by the applicant. Be certain that your screening provider uses standardized tools that search nationwide, across all states, counties, and US territories to report any outstanding records.
  • In-Person Verification: A background screen that requires individuals to show up in-person and provide “unfakable” biometric data (such as photo and fingerprints), along with qualified documents, is the gold standard for verifying a person is who they claim to be and that the background screen has cross-referenced multiple sources for verification.

Risk #3 – Not running a recurring screen

Many organizations have a “one and done” approach to vetting long-term volunteers with no subsequent inquiries into that person’s current standing. Unfortunately, status can change. When it does, the first “alert” an organization often receives is a knock on the door by authorities. When background screening is outdated, there’s a sense in which your “current” volunteer is anonymous. Implementing a recurring screen process ensures disqualifying information can be acted upon as soon as it’s available.

Welcome great volunteers, create confidence in your community

The key to managing risk and confidently welcoming volunteers is by verifying and monitoring identity using comprehensive tools. A healthy and secure nonprofit sector can better engage our kids, serve our communities, advance the arts, and protect our environment. Assessing risks in current systems and finding better solutions for identity management can free up nonprofit staff and resources, engage and empower volunteers, and create confidence in your organization about the safety of your staff, volunteers, and interaction in your community.


Greg Baldwin is President of VolunteerMatch — the Web’s largest volunteer engagement network. Greg joined the founding team in 1998 as its Chief Imagination Officer, and today, oversees the expansion of a network that serves over 110,000 nonprofits and seven million volunteers. Since 1998, VolunteerMatch has helped the nonprofit sector attract more than $10.3 billion worth of volunteer services. Greg graduated from Brown University in 1990 with B.A. in Public Policy. He is a lifelong volunteer and lives in the Bay Area with his wife Kathryn and two kids, Ellie and Matt.

Justin P. Oberman is Vice President, Identity Strategy, for SureID. In this role, Justin is responsible for educating existing and new customers and partners on the value of high assurance identities. Justin has more than 15 years of experience in credentialing and identity management. While at the U.S. Department of Transportation in 2001, Justin co-founded TSA as employee #3 of the agency. He set up and ran TSA’s vetting programs, involving hundreds of millions of airline passengers, and tens of millions of workers in all modes of transportation.  Justin graduated with High Honors from Wesleyan University (Conn.) and lives in Chicago with his wife Sara and two young sons. To find out more about SureID’s program with VolunteerMatch visit the landing page here.

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